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Consortion holds broadband forum at NMU

Gavin Leach, vice chairman of MCAN and vice president for finance and administration at NMU

MARQUETTE — Broadband access, affordability and adoption in Michigan was the focus of a listening forum held by the Michigan Consortium of Advanced Networks, or MCAN, at Northern Michigan University Thursday.

MCAN was formed by Gov. Rick Synder’s office earlier this year with the goal of establishing a “roadmap to help strengthen statewide broadband access and connectivity, leading to a digital transformation of Michigan,” according to MCAN.

It formed as a response to the “critical need for broadband,” particularly in Michigan’s rural communities, said Gavin Leach, vice chair of MCAN and vice president for finance and administration at NMU.

Leach said approximately 65 percent of Michigan residents access to broadband, but MCAN hopes to see this number increase to 95 percent in the coming years.

“Ensuring that all of Michigan citizens and businesses had access to broadband was a critical point to the state,” Leach said, noting that broadband access is a key factor for education and economic development in Michigan.

Based on the critical need for broadband access across the state, Leach and other MCAN members have been tasked with putting together a roadmap with recommendations for improving broadband access and connectivity in Michigan, due Aug. 1.

MCAN held the listening forums at NMU and several other locations in the state to gather feedback and input from residents on the specific challenges and needs in their areas.

“One of the things we wanted to make sure, is we heard from everybody because there’s so many different needs and we wanted to make sure you take that all that into account before you finalize a plan because you want to build the best plan possible to ensure success,” Leach said.

The primary focus is on areas that are unserved and underserved, with little or no access to broadband, Leach said.

“We’ve taken a primary focus at the front end on ensuring the unserved and under severed get the access that they need,” Leach said, “As well as building some policies and structure so that future the always looks at Michigan as being a leader in having broadband connectivity.”

People from all across the Upper Peninsula attended the event to provide their input, including individuals involved in education, local government, economic development, and broadband.

Improving broadband access in the U.P. could have a cascade of benefits, attendees and MCAN members said. It can help develop, retain and attract talented employees, well-paying jobs, thriving businesses and high-performing students.

Attendees broke into small focus groups to discuss what they feel are major local issues regarding broadband access and adoption, and how they feel these issues could be improved, with an MCAN moderator present to listen to the individual comments and take notes.

At the close of the forum, each focus group had a representative share the major themes and topics they discussed regarding the improvement of broadband access in the U.P.

Locally, unserved and underserved areas were a major issue, as a lack of broadband access can be problematic for education and inhibit economic development, talent attraction and retention in the area.

As Leach and several attendees mentioned, there are many areas in the U.P. that do not have access to broadband internet.

“A lot of communities, in a central area may have some broadband, the main part of the small town. But then about three blocks from the main part of town, nobody has access, so how do you solve that issue and how do you assist communities in building a plan for that?” Leach said.

Many rural communities that lack broadband access may not have the resources to implement a plan to bring broadband to their area.

“The rural communities, they lack the access, many communities don’t know the way of how to attract it or to help implement a plan to bring broadband to their area,” Leach said.

A major theme of the forum’s discussion is how public-private partnerships and other models could help bring broadband to rural areas.

“That’s where we’re looking at different forms of partnerships, with the state’s assistance in helping encourage grassroots planning together with citizens, businesses, public entities and looking at a variety of business models to make that happen,” Leach said.

Locating vertical infrastructure for broadband equipment, and where the people are in relationship to the vertical infrastructure, is a key project to address, attendees said, noting that public-private partnerships could be a mechanism to begin this type of project.

“We want to ensure the state is constantly looking at ways to build up the communications infrastructure to make sure Michigan’s a leader in it and that helps with attracting businesses and improving quality of life around the state,” Leach said.

MCAN is now tasked with taking the feedback and information they gathered through the listening forums and formulating this information into their final recommendations, which they will present to Gov. Snyder Aug. 1.

“At this point, we haven’t put anything in concrete, everything is open for discussion and after we go through these listening sessions, now we’ll have another meeting and go through everything we heard from the five listening sessions throughout the state and then we’ll try to condense that to an overall plan over the next couple months,” Leach said.

Cecilia Brown can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248. Her email address is cbrown@miningjournal.net.